Catherine the Great’s Byzantium
Catherine II inspired many Russian projects in historical studies. She herself was an active, if amateur, historian. The empress eagerly used history to promote her own political ideas and was an avid reader of history, both Russian and ancient. But what about Byzantine history? One would think she would have been interested in it as well, since between the late 1770s and the early 1790s, Catherine was enraptured by a plan to dismember the Ottoman Empire and recreate Byzantium with the capital in Constantinople. In her view, her youngest grandson (born in 1779) was to rule this future empire and was deliberately named Konstantin. This “Greek Project”, broadly regarded to have been the main thrust of Russian foreign policy for fifteen years, had very solid cultural “wrappings” such as architectural projects, poetry, drama, paintings, medals, etc. The author examines whether this campaign was accompanied by a deeper interest in and knowledge of the history of the Byzantium that Catherine wanted to revive. The author concludes that the empress did not bother to learn anything about this great civilization. Byzantine history, apart from Russo-Byzantine relations, did not become a subject of scholarly research during her reign. Catherine herself began reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but gave it up on the eighth volume of its French translation, thus going no further than the fifth century, when Byzantium proper was just emerging. In her play Oleg’s Early Rule, she demonstrated complete ignorance of Byzantine history, culture, court ceremonies, etc. Finally, numerous and blatant errors in the “Byzantine” parts of her Notes on Russian History suggest that Catherine had no interest in or “a big picture” of Byzantine history. Only once in this extensive book, and even then only in a footnote, do we suddenly come across a very precise, thoughtful, and detailed description of Byzantine facts, namely, of the Varangian guards at the imperial court of Constantinople. This suggests that when Catherine deemed a subject important, she was able to find exhaustive information on any “Byzantine” question. Yet, of all things Byzantine, Catherine showed interest in only one issue, and that was because it concerned the “Norman question”, a highly sensitive topic in her time and ever since. Otherwise, the empress remained completely indifferent to Byzantium. It can be surmised that Catherine never saw the “Greek Project” as a practical task of recreating a real state with its distinct laws, officials, territorial division and, finally, church.
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